Category Archives: 100 tools for being human

Tools for being human, part ten: Costumes

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My birthday sits just in front of the largest costume event on the calendar. One way I mark the passing of the years is by attempting to one-up my previous years Halloween efforts. What is it about dressing up that excites me? Is it just showing off, or can it really be a useful tool for being human?

I imagine clothing started off as purely practical. Warmth, protection from the elements, a way of enabling us to walk quickly down a gravel driveway, or cross a pit of Lego bricks, or traverse the hot sands between the shade of the beachside pine trees and the cooling temptations of the blue sea.

I reckon that occasionally some new idea would provide an evolutionary advantage. The first person to carve a tread into the bottom of their moccasins, she gained a speed advantage over her tribe-mates. “I don’t need to outrun the sabre tooth cheetah, I just need to outrun Og and his sister Grog.” Sneaker envy was born.

It’s impossible to pinpoint when dressing-up as a pastime began, but I’m guessing somewhere between the development of the fireman’s uniform and the release of the Village People’s first music video. I can though pinpoint the catalyst for my own infatuation with costumes.


Costumes can transform the way I see myself

My first costuming memory is of me cutting up an old sheet in order to produce a Luke Skywalker outfit for a school production. There are many, many blessings to being schooled prior to the development of social media. An absence of record of me dancing to “We built this city on rock and roll” with my legs wrapped in tea-stained bandages is one of them. But without that costume, anxiety would have had me in the audience, rather than on the stage.

As a kid we get to try things on for size. Cowboy hats, a shopkeeper’s apron, your Mum’s high heels, your Dad’s shaving cream. We have a freedom to become.

But as an adult, we often feel a pressure to make decisions, to choose a career, to define ourselves in a number of ways. Am I guy who goes to football matches, or to the theatre? Do I believe in a God? Republican or Democrat? I’m expected to make choices, to vocalise my opinions, and to stick to both. I don’t then mention that I dreamt of being a train driver, or a doctor, or an elf. 

A costume is an opportunity to voice to a part of us that is usually heard only within the walls of our mind. We get to be amorous, vocal, smug, complicated, emotional…we get to pair up with other cat-in-the-hats, dance with John & Ringo, wolf-whistle at Marilyn Monroe. There’s a delicious freedom in the becoming, and costume can enable that. If you asked the average person in my society to play a role for an hour, you’ll invoke “fight or flight”. But if you give them a wig and a mirror…put a wig on them and give them a mirror…


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Costumes can transform the way others see me

I flew to New York City last year with two primary goals:

  1. To experience (and write about) the presidential election.
  2. To take part in the East Village Halloween parade.

A week before the world shifted under the weight of that election result, I dressed up as a Zombie Astronaut and travelled on the subway from Williamsburg to Manhattan. That journey was where my metropolitan crush began. That evening I wasn’t a white-guy tourist on a train, I was a zombie in a space suit. Lights pulsed on my back and blood ran down my neck. 

A young black family boarded the crowded carriage at Broadway.  The young daughter looked to my neck wound, then to her Mom. Mom reassured her. “He’s just playing, honey.” And for the next six stops I got non-stop acting tips from a six-year-old and her nine-year-old brother, and an apologetic shrug from their grinning mother.

I harvested hugs, hit out at high-fives, and allowed myself to be drawn into selfies. Our appearance guides people’s first impressions. When you’re obviously dressed as an impossibility, then prejudices can be nullified. As I walked up the steps up to Canal Street I wondered what the world would be like if we all shifted appearance intermittently. Where then would racism land?

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Costumes are catalysts to play

My sister and her husband run a backpacker hostel in Derry, Northern Ireland, a city which hosts one of Europe’s most enthusiastic Halloween events. I love visiting at the end of October, chasing down costume accessories with enthusiastic Spanish, carving pumpkins in the basement with the Germans. 

I also love applying makeup to anxious first-timers. They shrug their shoulders, accept a glass of snakebite with a trembling hand, and sit quietly as I paint those devil’s eyes. I step away and they move towards a mirror or appreciative applause, and their demon lip curls, and a convert struts out into a city of happy terrors.

I’ve watched Elvis dance-offs, I’ve seen T-Rexes twerking, I’ve paused as NYC police lined up to get photos with the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. I spent a month doing night-shoots on Lord of the Rings, and one of my most vivid memories is of standing amongst a dozen warriors atop a castle wall, playing charades with a group of Orcs below.

Too often we designate playtime as a function of childhood, but there’s a reason that none of us wanted to be home in time for dinner. Because we valued fun over safety, over pretenses, over rules. There’s something about dressing as someone else that can reawaken that state. And I think fun is one of the most important factors in my enjoyment of being human.

Final words

Costumes can break down barriers by momentarily masking our default selves. They can disrupt our visual prejudices. They give us an excuse to play. Sometimes it is only in dressing as someone else, that you get an opportunity to reflect on who it is that you’ve chosen to be.

It’s exactly two months until Halloween. Happy days.

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Tools for being human, part nine: Cooking and eating with others

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In my childhood, meals were consumed eye-to-eye. The family sitting, circling the table, forks and knives hovering under conversation. Even Friday-night fish and chips were elevated, the hot paper-bound bundle of deep-fried all-sorts steaming the glass table-top. Tomato sauce allocated in five small dollops. Buttered bread in a leaning tower. No TV, no radio, no tapping sly LOLs to mates under the table.

In the warmer parts of the Mediterranean, an evening meal with family might last for two, three hours. In our house it was usually forty-five minutes. Three-quarters of an hour of noisy retellings, prompting questions, and arguments over who had found the most chunks of toffee in their ice-cream. Then at around 6:48pm Mum or Dad would check a watch, and table clearing would begin, just in time for the marine weather forecast.

Food was the thing that unfailingly drew us together as a family, but in many ways it was the winds that were responsible for what ended up on the table. My father loves, loves, loves the sea. He worked any number of jobs, but his default workplace was between lapping waves and sandy seabed, hunting out the ocean’s bounty. So between 6:51 and 6:57 there was a communal silence as predictions were made. Light variables, Southerlies dying out overnight, squalls,  gusts and gales.

If the conditions were favourable, my brother, sister and I knew we’d be bundled up in the back tray of the Land Rover, sliding back and forth amongst the fish boxes and dive lungs. Most of the seafood limits were on a per person basis, so the three of us plus Dad meant twenty-four crayfish. I ate a lot of crayfish as a kid. Fortunately Dad knew a lot of the Greek and Italian families that had been drawn to Wellington’s rugged south coast. And seafood to them, was like cigarettes to the imprisoned. So after a day in the sand we’d park up outside garages and kitchens, having our cheeks pinched by enthusiastic Nonas as the trades were done. Prosciutto for cod, baklava for shellfish, wine for scallops.

If say an eighth of my early years were spent on beaches and bays, then another eighth must have been spent in the kitchen. My father was trained as a chef, in a fancy hotel, by men who ranted in French. It was only natural to him, to spend time with us in the kitchen, teaching us to make pastries, sauces and casoulets. He had a library of faded French cooking manuals, but he taught us that the best meals were made from simple ingredients, drawn by hand, from land and sea. Fresh mushrooms from an absent farmer’s fields, cooked in cream and thyme. Butterfish cooked on an open fire with a little butter and a few capers, as the tide creeps stealthily away.

My first experience cooking in a commercial kitchen was beneath an 800 year old church in Cambridgeshire. I worked, ate, drank and played with a mix of central Americans, Europeans, Australians and Brits. A delicious blend of accents, cooking traditions, and ways of interpreting the world. We all cycled Cambridge’s narrow, cobbled streets to work, our wheels juddering madly as we swept past colleges and chapels. We’d lock our bikes to the church gates, beside boxes of early morning produce, which we’d haul into the larder, flanked by hundreds of shelved ingredients.

There’s something visceral about catering. There is the short time-frames of production. Menus were clipped to stainless steel walls at 6:00am, the first batches of scones and breads lined the counter at 8am. There’s the physicality, the great dance, flashing knives, swooping trays, fast marching waiters, swinging doors. There is heat and cold, the spin up of enormous ovens, the gentle shudder of cheese fridges. And of course there is the end product, the gentle stacks and swirls on the plate, the scents and tastes and colours of the season.

I know I’ve never worked harder, but I’m also pretty sure I’ve never laughed more. The various roles are all so tightly interlinked: the baker, the dishwasher, the cake decorator. No failure is independent, no success singular. We’d picked each other up, wiped one another down, and limped across the finish line as one, coated in flour, drizzled in sweat and thirsty for a pint. It’s the sort of teamwork that can build great fellowship. And of course, produce the occasional drama.

After catering a wedding, or a bell-ringers dinner, we’d sometimes set off on our bikes, for a chef’s basement home. There we’d drink Suffolk ciders and Speyside Whiskey, while one of us cooked food from the homeland. Pierogi, Coca Cola pork, tea smokes mash. One of my greatest ever meals was wild boar sausages, in banana beer batter, at 2:00am, eaten to the sounds of our Welsh head chef playing Alice in Chains tunes on his jet-black guitar.

Since then I’ve cooked puddings at Scottish festivals, supported by spliff-rolling Spaniards. I’ve whipped up dishes from the gardens of an Irish castle, and I’ve woken in the early hours to help bake bagels in Jewish delis. But many of my favourite memories are set in my Sister’s kitchen, under her backpackers home in Derry. Whenever I spend time there we end up cooking a slow meal, maybe a course each, starting some time in the mid afternoon. By the time the hot trays are drawn from the stove, the heavy wooden table is surrounded by people from all nations, wine from New Zealand, and throaty laughter.

 

For me, cooking allows me an opportunity to create, to interpret, to participate in something universal, something which transcends linguistic borders. It is an endeavour of creation which always finds a grateful audience.

So thank you Dad, for teaching me that if I dedicate myself to my passions, then there are fewer gaps in my life. Thank you Mum, for being the one who taught us the value of communion and companionship, and for occasionally letting us eat our steak in slabs of soft, white bread. And thank you to all of you that I’ve shared a kitchen with. You helped me expand my creative boundaries, diversify my cultural understanding, and extend my range of curses.

Bon apetit!

Tools for being human, part eight: Owning my age

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My age was a defining characteristic right from the start. Actually, probably before the start, measured really from the moment of conception. Once I was freed of the womb, it was a scale against  which my progress was judged. “Oh, so he isn’t crawling yet? Never mind, maybe he can be a conservative.”

It soon became part of the way I defined myself. “My name is Regan, I can draw an airplane and tie my shoe laces and I am four-and-three-quarters”. It became a ranking system in social situations. The five-year-olds got the toy rifles, those under five made do with sticks or finger-pointing. Though I did learn to draw that Remington two-finger pretty damn quick.

It was age-division that was my first experience of segregation. Specifically the great adult-child divide. At celebrations us children got a lower table, fewer items of cutlery, and higher sugar-content foods. The adults had the taller tables, more complicated social rules, and decisions to make on who would have to drive. I also learnt that certain behaviour, activities and ideologies were restricted to each side. Alcohol, untruths and high-impact cursing were strictly for “the adults”. Imagination, playtime and brutal honesty were the domain of children.

And yet my memories of childhood are largely of sunlight and adventure. I didn’t undergo any of the maturity summoning transformations that some of my peers had to face. My parents never divorced, I didn’t have to raise my siblings, I was neither abused nor abandoned. I got to be a very thorough eight year old, building fortresses from cushions, mown-grass, and imagination. I was a competent ten-year old, earning my scars by playing games of “policemen versus protestors”, riding my BMX off cliffs, and hurling adult-branded curses at bullies. And I became well-versed in the dark arts of teenageism. Blushing around girls, arguing with Dad about the length of my hair, and replacing judicious portions of my parent’s darker spirits with tea.

When I look at a photo of myself on my 21st birthday, I realise that I largely matched society’s age-expectations. I had a peer-inherited (and media enhanced) disregard for authority. I had long hair, and a tattoo with an ungracious story. I left university classes early to play bass guitar in a metal band named Shocker. And I had a Rainman-like ability to calculate the best alcohol-by-volume-by-price in a bottle store. Yip, 94% age-appropriate.

Social pressure remained relentless, if not always overt. I understood that by the age of thirty I should have been married, with a house, and maybe a child on the way. I rebelled. It wasn’t until thirty-one I had a wife and a house. And horses. I had a good, steady job that paid well, but I’d demoted fantasy and imagination, replaced some of my dreams with wants. As a result there was a tension within me, a pull between society’s expectations, and my buried needs. At thirty-three, I imploded. House, home, relationship, job. I didn’t have the emotional maturity to deal with the aftermath. So I boarded a plane.

For the next few years I put myself in situations where I lived, worked and danced with people ten years younger than me. People who labelled their hopes as certainties rather than impracticalities. People who looked for their options on a wide horizon rather than down a narrow tunnel. Ok, some of them pissed in the laundry, shat in the shower or offered loud advice from places of ignorance. But by now I knew that age was no antidote to foolishness. I started to realise that elucidation had to be earned, not granted. So I paid attention to my surroundings.

One of the greatest things about immersing yourself in an unfamiliar community, is that you have a chance of developing empathy, appreciation, understanding. Ageing is an opportunity through which we can build comprehension through experience. What it is like to sit in your first maths lesson. What it means to be afraid of the dark. What it means to be struggling with teenage ideas around gender. Imagine what we might gain if had to live through a range of ethnicities? Or if over our lifetime we gradually shifted gender? What insights and understanding might we draw?

And yet such opportunities might well be squandered. At thirty I believed that the people I could best relate to, were those of my own age. I thought that we’d been born at the best possible time, and that we shared things no other age could understand. Hair metal, misogyny, The Goonies. Besides, society frowns at the idea of inter-age mingling. It represents it as insidious, or inappropriate, or sad. At thirty-three I began to undo my prejudice. As a consequence I spent the next ten years learning my most consequential lessons in humility, creativity, and the development of wisdom, from yoofs.

One of those world-shakers was my girlfriend for much of that time. She taught me the importance of honesty, and honour. Of forgiveness.The difference in our ages wasn’t a problem until a biological alarm shifted her world. Fortunately she’d also taught me enough about self-reflection to avoid immolation, and so I began hosting couch surfers in order to fill a number of voids. And I was surprised to find that one of the most spontaneous, creative and inspirational was a woman just a little older than me. She had endless stories, she’d made beer for years, and she lived in Boulder, Colorado. Like Mork and Mindy (kids my age will get it…). I booked another flight.

She introduced me to a range of wonderful people, people who at forty, or fifty, or sixty, who still had an eye on the horizon. People who didn’t let their age dictate who they should be. People who rather than giving up on their dreams, had chased them down, and then found new ones. And since then I keep finding older-aged heroes.

Ageism is a powerful prejudice, one which build barriers and promotes ignorance. Our societies should promote kinship, not division. And as with anything societal, it is up to me to be part of any change.

So I choose to see age as a choice, not a curse. I can choose to age poorly. Choose a diet designed to challenge my heart and bowels rather than befriend them. Choose to define functional alcoholism my pointing to the one gunt in the pub that’s more pished than I am. Choose to tell myself that a sore back, a beer belly, and a mutually damaging relationship with a girlfriend I’ve taught myself to hate, are all symptoms of too many years, rather than my own poor choices.

Or I can choose to learn every day, to rewrite my prejudices through experience. Choose to summon the vigour and hope of my teens and wrap this around the compassion and care I’ve taken on in my forties. Choose to measure people by the depth of their hugs, the warmth of their smile, and their capacity for enjoyment, rather than the country of their birth, the number of candles on their cake, or their possession (or lack of) a Y-chromosome.

I choose to make (as much as possible) my own choices.

Tools for being human, part seven: Eclecticism

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I once sat between two huge men in a seedy Budapest bar, hoping my mate Paul wasn’t being drowned by their companions in some dark stretch of the Danube. One of us (I don’t think either of us remembers/admits whose idea it was) told the other “let’s get a cab to the seediest pub in the city”, and there I sat, dripping with sweat and regret. It was a situation which taught me several things. That I can trust Paul in a sticky situation. That if you’re unable to pay a debt to the Hungarian Mafia, then you get pimped out in live sex shows. And that my desire to experience more of life occasionally threatens to shorten it.

The other significant understanding that hindsight offers, is that my willingness to engage with as many different ideas, experiences and people as possible, builds the parts of me I’m most proud of. I believe there is a cost in denying myself an opportunity to try something out. The price is ignorance, reduced opportunities. And most disappointing of all, it means fewer chances to overlap with other people.

It frustrates me when people reject things without strong reasoning. “I don’t dance, I don’t read anything by female authors, I’ll never watch anything made by Disney.” It upsets me when I realise I’ve rejected something from a place of ignorance, from prejudice. Short-cut thinking is something I battle against, mental laziness. And sometimes it really is a battle. It is easy to maintain a huge list of ideas with a yes/no indicator next to them. Do I give a shit about dinosaurs? No. Do I care about someone else’s faith? No. But I find it is then very difficult to undo these binary indicators.

Instead though, I can leave a space next to anything that I haven’t tried. Am I going to be impressed by walking in the footprints of dinosaurs in Colorado? Blank space. I’m far more likely to convince myself to give something a try, if my mind isn’t already saying “not interested”. And once I’ve built a history of saying “Cool, I’m up for it”, then the momentum of previous exciting experiences builds, and it generates FOMO as a by-product. And the Fear Of Missing Out, is a great counter-balance to niggling anxieties about exposure to shame, embarrassment, or naked flames.

I’d like to congratulate my family for their contribution to this mental attitude. I grew up with two siblings, and though we all shared a love of hair metal and bourbon, we also developed independent ideas of what constituted a good time. For example my brother was the martial arts one, and my sister the horse riding one. And growing up with them meant I watched them find grins and LOLs in places I hadn’t been. And eventually I guess it was FOMO again, which led me to dabble in their respective arts. So one day I trained in Japanese sword fighting, which led to my involvement in the Lord of the Rings films. And another time I began taking riding lessons, which has led to trots amongst the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, tolts through the snow on Icelandic horses, and limb-ducking gallops across Czech forests. Oh, and several friendships, and a marriage.

My Dad didn’t do anything to counter my desire for diverse experiences. First, library visits with him meant I found joy in reading science fiction, Aesop’s fables, and to a lesser degree the ingredients on a can of toilet spray while I wait for difficult movements. This led to a (at this stage embryonic) career in writing, an inescapable interest in foreign lands and people, and a solid knowledge of non-CFC propellant mechanisms. Dad also had a strong desire to be his own boss, twinned with a low tolerance for boredom. So his decision to wear many different hats (firman’s helmet, chef’s toque, SCUBA mask) contributed to the ease with which I visualised myself as a chainsaw sculptor.

And then my wonderful Mum, she trained as a nurse, she worked with special needs kids, and then she led her and my Dad into a career in the wine industry when she decided to train in viticulture. So yip, I blame her for my weakness around an open bottle of wine, but also for my compassion, and that one time I worked as an art tutor with vulnerable communities.

So I have my family to thank for one of my greatest super-powers. And one of the greatest benefits of this power, is that it helps counteract a natural shyness. My readiness to consider almost anything has resulted in an interest in almost everything. I find that in general, when I meet someone new, I can usually find areas of commonality. Of overlap. This isn’t necessarily a shared experience or expertise, but if I haven’t told myself I don’t give a shit about laser holograms, then each time I encounter something around them, I build a little understanding. I write something other than “NO” in that blank box. And so when I meet an old Canadian scientist in a mead-dealing pub in Cesky Krumlov, we share an evening of stories, laughter, and herbed honey wines.

Common ground is a wonderful place for two people to start building a conversation, or mutual respect, or a plan to spend more time together. It doesn’t matter that I’m a Kiwi of no fixed career, and she’s a world class Brazilian surfer, my ability to find joy in more things rather than less, means that I’m more likely to be as interested in her side of the conversation as my own.

I’m far from perfect. There are plenty of things that I reacted against with minimal information. But I didn’t write “NO!” in the boxes next to Drum and Bass, or Trailer parks, or Bluegrass, and so when I eventually tried them, I discovered some of my most transcendent escapades. So I’ll push myself to maintain an open mind on as much as life as possible, because each new experience is a teacher, and each teacher guides me from places of ignorance, towards greater communion, towards stronger friendships, and towards being a more capable human.

Tools for being human, part six: Spending time in other people’s shoes

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Before I started to travel, I thought the most inspirational experiences on the road would be those that belonged in an adventure film. Exploring intricate temples by torch-light, fighting imaginary foes on castle walls, passionate kisses on broken towers in front of rich sunsets. My first morning in Kuala Lumpur taught me that there was more to life than moments.

I woke early that day, a combination of time zones and excitement. I drew myself into thin clothing and stepped bleary-eyed into the dawn. I rose my hand over my eyes and admired the strong, early light painting a crumbling wall stone-fruit colours. I turned to look for shade and noticed an old woman shelling prawns on a step before a dark doorway. Our introduction was nods and smiles, and I stepped a little closer to look into her steel bowl. She tipped her head to the side as I made admiring noises, then held up a finger. She drew herself upward and then disappeared briefly through the doorway. She returned and passed me a second, smaller bowl, and nodded at the step. I sat down and she nudged the bucket between us. She showed me how to peel and de-vein with nimble movements, and then we sat, side-by-side, and watched the world wake.

She nodded to delivery men, she scolded children, and she kept an eye on my amateur efforts. She explained my presence to friends with shrugs of her shoulders, and they smiled in sympathy. And as the bucket slowly emptied, I imagined our spirits trading places, that it would be her that stood and brushed her hands on her thighs and walked out to find the tourist markets, and me that nodded gently and continued to shell prawns, rocking gently on the doorstep. And it was there, half-way through my second bowl, that I began a more important journey.

I once stopped over in Vancouver for a week, unsure what to expect. The first morning was cool and crisp, and I drew my beanie down over my ears as I walked towards the waterfront. I slowed to watch a young woman talking to her dog and rubbing its long ears. The two of them were curled under old blankets, beside steaming steel grates. I pretended to search through my bag for something, giving myself to observe without causing anxiety. I couldn’t get her out of my head as I continued down the streets, towards the super yachts and tourist float planes. What was the last thing she said to her parents? Did she befriend the dog here, in the city? The next day she was there again. And the next. I walked the same street each morning, hesitant to come too close, but curious for her story, for some understanding of the smiles she shared with her brindle hound.

On my final day in the city I bought a coffee, a hot chocolate, and some dog biscuits. I approached the lamppost which marked her spot with a mix of trepidation and excitement. I squinted into the sun as I approached the steam vent but there was no silhouette. Her spot was vacant. I was struggling with my backpack and hot drinks, so I awkwardly repositioned myself, arrayed my burdens around the lamppost and sat on my pack. I sat there in the sun’s glare, comfy in my three layers of jackets, sipping at the hot coffee. As I pushed the first empty cup aside a pedestrian glanced down at the cup and then to my eyes, and I shivered under their gaze. I was there for an hour with her ghosts, rubbing my hands and trying to guess her name. And wondering where or who I might be, if I’d lived through her days.

When I walk amongst the native forests in New Zealand, the birds are quiet. If I slow, then stop and lean gently against a giant Kauri tree, and close my eyes, I become accepted. The birds begin to pass messages on once more, and I become part of the bush. In the first days in a new neighbourhood I am an observer. I listen to the way people greet one another, the “good mornings” and “I’m enchanted”s. I swap nods with the old gents with hands clasped behind their backs. I find the streets where people sit and watch and wait for someone to ask how their week’s been. And gradually the gravity of communion draws me in, and I become a somewhat awkward part of the environment.

In the first weeks I’ve found good coffee (or began making it myself). I’ve hunted out the borscht made by the ex-mayor’s mother, and it may not be the best, but she speaks a little English and calls me ‘the lost one’ and introduces me to the regulars. I’ve found a piano shop where the students go to practice and dream, and on Thursdays a slim, dark browed man plays Crowded House songs with a gentle touch and his own version of the lyrics. Maybe I’m trying to understand the history of rebellion by hunting out ghosts and graffiti. I know what time the fresh custard tarts are drawn from the oven, and when to expect the rains.

After a year I am talking with new words and laughing at new ideas. I’ve found a job, or a way to live without one. I’ve found a new shirt, a new hat, and a pair of shoes that fits. When I walk through the dust and the mud I leave differently shaped footprints. I affect the economy, the gossip, even the scenery. And they affect me.

Taking these opportunities to dwell in places and situations far removed, it isn’t about the photographs, or the harvesting of stories. Ok, maybe a little, I’m a photographer, a writer. But more importantly it is the most effective method I know of for eroding my ignorance. Mornings sitting on a cool sidewalk, watching what was being delivered, peeled, stacked or washed. Watching how dogs and wives and spilt blood are treated. Standing in a queue at the post office, listening to the banter between builder and bailiff. Each step I take in another person’s shoes is a step towards a wider horizon.

Tools for being human, part five: Lego

lego-3I think the two most transformative toys of my childhood were my bike, and Lego. The bicycle might earn a place in this list at some stage, but today I want to talk about magical Danish bricks.

Five things Lego taught me about life

1. Lego taught me perseverance

The sound of my hand moving back and forth between one thousand plastic pieces in a wooden drawer. A pause as I draw up a helpful looking piece. The wrinkling of my brow as I realise it is too long, or too short. The feeling of the gentle-sharp bricks against my skin as I re-sift. The presence of a dozen four by four bricks when all you want is a six by four. Alanis Morissette would sympathise. The satisfaction as I finally roll a blue one-er between my fingers, all I need to complete the periscope on Captain Nemo’s submarine. Lego rewarded perseverance.

These days the hunts for a lost piece are over wider areas: Car keys, credit cards, camera chargers. As I try to remember where I left something, that old Lego drawer could be a metaphor for my ageing brain, my consciousness trawling back and forth between irrelevant information, trying to draw out the one piece I need. Maybe I should keep all those useful things in a wooden drawer. Good idea Lego.

2. Lego taught me competitive spirit (or perhaps selfishness)

The battles to the last part. My brother, sister and I combing frantically, harvesting wheels in the race to build the most powerful battle truck. Their younger eyes, my longer arms, I lean further and further over the drawer attempting to obscure their views. Lego and a shared pack of fish and chips were the two surest way to encourage my competitive edge as I hoarded blue bricks and hot chips with the watchfulness of a lioness and the selfishness of an elder brother. I don’t think I ever wished my siblings would disappear, but I did sometimes imagine how much more simple life would have been if they’d been born with little baby t-rex arms…

3. Lego left gaps for my imagination

A brick is a wall, is a building, is a spaceship blast-door. The most powerful thing about Lego was that it left space for my imagination. Jagged brick lines became a dragon’s tail, a pirate’s whip (everyone in my imagination had whips after Indiana Jones) or a breaking wave. Spit would fly as I added a juddering soundtrack of explosions, laser blasts or dragster wheels spinning. The joy really was in the neutrality of the bricks, they were simply a stepping off point to a story. The creators of Dr Who understood that dodgy props and costumes don’t matter, as long as you’ve engaged the viewer’s imagination.

4. Lego encouraged versatile thinking

Perhaps because Lego let me imagine I could build anything, it also encouraged me to think outside the bricks. At its core it was a building set, and it played well with others. It had hinge and hooks, holes and connectors. With a rubber band I could enable a catapult to fire, or make the world’s most delicate tank tracks. One of my friends got a Pez dispenser for his birthday. I eventually swallowed my envy and built one out of Lego. Ok, my fish bowl wasn’t so successful, but the epic flyovers us kids built for the slot car set were Californian in scale, if a little third world in execution.

Lego didn’t make me an overnight engineer, but I learned that if I didn’t have something, then I could make it. So I built medieval weapons in Granddad’s workshop, tea-stained treasure maps in the kitchen, and launched hand-crafted rubber-band powered planes with Dad on the driveway. I’m convinced that a childhood of making and crafting has contributed to my conviction that I can make do with less.

5. Lego was a hardening agent and a catalyst for curses

For every miracle of Scandinavian toy creation there is a dark side. Bare footed night-time walks to the bathroom were the best way to hunt out lost bricks. Actually maybe that’s just a spectacularly good design feature, no piece of Lego was ever lost for long. Lego prepared my feet for jerky barefoot walks down gravel paths, and jolting runs over hot black sands. Unfortunately it also earned me a few scoldings for the foul-mouthed language of discovery, but other people treading on misplaced bricks did help widen my cursive vocabulary. Very useful for blending in at Glaswegian festivals.

Still, I’d much rather run over a pit of hot coals than a blanket covered in those jagged-edged plastic shards. A blessing and a curse then.

Lego as guru

Dear Lego,

You taught me of Dependability and versatility. You were an aid to my story telling. You taught me never to get too attached to my creations, as the next day they would need to be demolished to make way for whatever came next. You tried to teach me that there was no such thing as perfection, that it was ok to have an all red sports car, except for one side of the bonnet. We had to agree to disagree there.

Thank you Lego, for the part you played in my own construction. And thank you Mum and Dad, for paying over the odds for a Danish toolkit for my imagination.

Much love,

x Regan

Tools for being Human, part four: Dancing

dance

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with dancing. I don’t think there is anything I’ve ever felt so embarrassed doing, so many times, yet still felt a compulsion to repeat. Not even skateboarding. But I’m writing about a hundred things that help me feel human, not a hundred things I’m really good at. And there are times that moving to the rhythm, has a power to lift me beyond troubles, over hurdles, and beyond the reach of apathy. But there are other times that I stand on the edge of the dance floor and something inside me won’t allow my soul release.

I think key to understanding my schizophrenic response to the tempo is to map my rhythm-enthusiasm against my self-confidence. On the courageous evenings when my assurance is firm, my rhythmic libido is freely exposed. On the darker nights of the soul, during those long hours in which I suspect I was placed on this earth as a lesson to others, there’s no way this fool should be on the d-floor. No one should have to bear witness to an uncommitted dancer.

I guess I should take time to understand how I came to this perplexing state. Maybe it is time for a little journey through my history with dance.

The Waltz

Ballroom dancing lessons. Who the feck decided the best way to prepare me for the real world was to force me into such a blush summoning, sweaty handed, gender-based Mexican stand-off? Thirty eight boys along one wall, thirty-nine girls along the other. Acne, quavering voices, levels of anxiety off the emotional Richter scale. Ok, ok, within all that terror and unrequited adrenaline there are slivers of excitement. The slow building drums of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”, those few, thin moments in which a girl approaches me, just before hope gives way to suspicion she’s acting under the power of a dare.

But it was in these sessions that I learnt of the fragility of hope. And that my ego was equally delicate. And that people I barely knew had the ability to fracture either with a simple, uncaring rejection. Films and television had intimated that my first dance would a series of stuttering moments, mis-steps with a soundtrack of mutual giggles. My hand held gently against the fabric of the back of her dress, her eyes and mine sharing brief glances. Reality delivered a sweaty angst-fest that very nearly put me off The Dance forever. It is only in writing this that I realise hip hop might well have saved me.

The Backspin

This was it, the phenomenon that let me believe dancing might actually be a legit part of my existence. Break dancing had “cool” accessories: a slice of metre-square  linoleum, an aunty-crafted  set of purple MC Hammer pants, a hand decorated ghetto blaster. Practice sessions were held in friend’s garages, or their bedrooms, one of us trying to desperately to balance single-handed on a coke can, the other clapping encouragement. Encouragement!

Us white boys lived so far from the ghetto we get to dance to caterpillar to the Footloose soundtrack without fear of dance-related beatings. There were rumours that huge gangs of angry teens in New York settled issues with dance-offs, so in a distant-cousin kind of way we were by association gangster, fly, on the edge of something our parents couldn’t understand. Superhero moves, running up walls, flips, high-tops. And the robot. I’ll never forget the feeling of the clap circle as I twisted into the start of an epic windmill, only to collapse in giggles and be hauled to my feet by friends. The memories of enforced waltzes weren’t forgotten, but Grandmaster Flash gave dance a fighting chance.

The mosh pit

There’s dancing with partners, there’s dancing in the centre of the circle, and then there’s the mosh pit. It isn’t easy to describe the uneasy combination of high intensity thrashing and a pervasive awareness of each other’s well-being. As one person goes down, others draw them up. As I launch myself into a shoulder charge, I’m landing my shoulder into another, I’m inflicting only the gentlest of bruises as guitars wail and drums thunder.

The pit is an example of mob mentality with a positive modifier. As you’re drawn into the front-of-stage crowd you become a part of it. It exists as an outlet for expression through physicality, but for me it is also an opportunity to be physically one with others. The moves are barely articulate, pogoing, short runs, twists to free yourself of the centre, and ultimately stage dives. But for me it is a way to hold onto others amongst the music, to feel part of something that extends beyond my own body. And there is something unveiling in aiming to appear out of control, and yet being aware of every twisting spirit around me. Rebellion tempered with empathy. I think it’s that tension that I enjoy, and the feel of the arching floorboards throwing me higher than the beat.

The rave

The millennium, champagne, pills, lines, Vauxhall Bridge, Swedish twins DJing, my first crack at the turntables. My introduction to rave culture was a trial by toxicity, my guide an Australian chef. Within a few hours the music finds a place within me, rounds out my skull, trembles down my arms. The courtship of narcotics and tunes, the slow build, the breakbeat, the pause and release. Music that only makes sense when you dance it.

My relationship with drum and bass and garage and trance was brief and intense. Two, three years, chasing what in the dusk felt like humanity’s best chance for empathic union, and in the dawn felt like a plot to enslave a generation of addictive personalities. But there’s something about dancing towards the DJ, lasers lighting up smoke, water bottles in the air. Your focus is forward or inward. With no audience there’s less room for inhibition. Just you , the tunes and 5,000 megawatts of lasers.

And so…

Hmm, ok, there’s a lot of good times in there. If I also add in all the slow-foot reggae shuffles in the sun, the car seat boogies on long road trips, the Forbidden Dance, the silent discos, dance has given far more than it has taken. And I guess it has never really taken anything, rather I’ve just not been in a position to give.

In future I’ll try to use some of these other tools to ensure I’m more open to her charms. And to my own.